|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2004|
Abdulkareem put down the piece of coal and wiped his brow, leaving the black stripe across his forehead, as anticipated.
The heat of the early spring raged full force ever since noon. Everything raged this spring. Passions raged, fueled by the fears and fueling them in return. Angry words were spoken by the enraged people. The mountain winds raged every night. The frequent sandstorms were of rare fury. And now the sun joined in and raged too. Verily, this was the season of rage.
Abdulkareem pondered on this rage. Was it this season alone? Was his entire life not the season of rage? I could hear his thoughts, as always.
"Abdulkareem!" I called him for the third time, and he knew there was no escape from me. Like a falcon I would soar, then dive at him for my daily nourishment: "Abdulkareem, tell me a story," I demanded.
"Scram, you rascal," said Abdulkareem without passion, and I knew, the story was about to follow. I was already married and had kids of my own, still he referred to me as rascal, and there was no changing that. Nor was there any need to change that, for Abdulkareem had raised me, fed me, clothed me, and told me stories after my mom and pa were no more.
Abdulkareem sat on the rock; a fat Turkish cigarette appeared in the corner of his mouth. He lit it with his Zippo lighter and sucked on it – tsk-tsk – like pleading with a horse.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked, repeating the preamble to his every story. For fifteen years now, he was telling me stories. In fifteen years, his cheeks got droopy, creasing his face into three distinct parts. His hair color turned from coal to ashes. His mustache turned yellow from the fat Turkish cigarettes. In fifteen years, I doubled in age and learned to hear his thoughts. All this made his stories all the more indispensable. But he always started them with the same preamble: "Do you know what this is?" and he held out his precious Zippo lighter.
"No," I told the obvious lie, "I don't know what it is. It looks like a brass lighter, but nothing is what it seems, right? So tell me, Abdulkareem!"
And so he did:
A long, long time ago birds were larger than they are today. They could fly around the world, to and from the foreign lands, sunrise to sunset, day and night. They were the messengers of good tidings and of doom, for they could see the world and observant they were.
The birds observed the world and people observed the birds, learning from them. Birds mixed straw and clay, making nests — and people learned homebuilding. Sometimes, the birds dropped fruit they carried, and the next year fruit trees grew in that spot — and people learned sowing and reaping.
Once, a thunderstorm raged throughout the land for days and days. People were cold and miserable and there was no refuge from falling water, nor was there refuge from the flooding water. The villagers huddled on top of the mountain, close to the All-merciful, pleading for their safety and warmth. Eventually their prayers were heard, the thunderstorm ended — and a bird was seen carrying a burning twig. She landed in the middle of the assembly, carefully set down the burning ember and flew off. This is how people learned fire.
Many a thing people learned from the birds, but the most coveted was flight. And people learned flight from the birds also. They learned to lure the birds with fruit and offer them comfortable dwellings of clay and straw. The birds lived in the large clay and straw huts made especially for them. Every morning, noon, and eve they were given large baskets of fruit of all kinds that could be found in the land. In return, the birds offered themselves as the carriers, for men to ride atop them into the clouds and see the world.
Once, and that too was a very long time ago, a foreign man flew overhead atop a magnificent bird, the largest we've ever seen. His bird had feathers of all colors and all the villagers grew envious. Everyone wanted to have a feather from this bird.
The foreigner landed, and people conspired to kill him and take the bird from him. They beat him senseless as he came to greet them. He was left for dead, but he was alive, and he was discovered later by a boy called Rashid.
The villagers preoccupied themselves with the splendid bird and became oblivious to all else — that's how greed blinds. And while the villagers saw nothing except the feathers, Rashid moved the foreigner to a remote hut and nurtured him back to life.
Soon the foreigner recovered, and could eat on his own, and sit up on his own, and then even walk around the hut on his own. But there was nowhere else he could walk, for fear of the villagers. And so he spent his days talking to Rashid and telling him stories about the foreign lands.
"Did you learn these stories from your bird?" asked Rashid on one occasion.
"No," said the foreigner. "All sorts of useful things and magic things we can learn from the birds, but there's one thing that only men can do: tell stories."
"But how do you know so much? How do these stories come into your head?" insisted Rashid. It was not possible that the stories would just appear out of nowhere in one's head!
The foreigner thought about it, and then reluctantly revealed the secret of the stories to Rashid.
"You saved my life," he said, "and I am grateful. You did not pillage with the rest — your heart knows not greed. Perhaps it is time for me to pass on to you the gift of stories, for I am convinced that you shall use the gift for the betterment of all."
The foreigner took out the brass Zippo lighter and gave it to Rashid, saying: "Flip the lid with your thumb – thus, and once you acquire the skill, small light will appear on top. This is the light of imagination. It burns day and night, in all weather, even in wind and rain and a thunderstorm. Stare at the light intently, count to eleven, and you will learn a new story. Each time you use the light of imagination, you will learn a new story."
"Wow!" said Rashid. "This is like Aladdin's Lamp!"
"Yes," said the foreigner, "only better. There is no mighty slave inside, waiting to obey you. There is only imagination, which is your own."
With that, the foreigner placed the brass Zippo lighter on top of the tablecloth and was gone into the night. He was never seen again.
Rashid used the lighter wisely. He told stories of great wisdom, and always his stories served to soften people's hearts, to melt their greed and to allay their fears. And when his time came to stand before the All-merciful, Rashid passed the lighter on to his youngest offspring, and he revealed to him the secret of imagination. And so the lighter and the secret were passed on from generation to generation until the lighter reached me, and now I use it to tell you these stories.
"Abdulkareem!" I said, "Every time you tell me a different story about this lighter. How is this possible?"
"It is the gift of imagination, naturally," replied Abdulkareem.
"You bought this lighter at the market in Baghdad!" I said.
He looked at me, then handed me a brick.
"Crush coal," he said. "Use the brick if you can't use imagination. One must be useful, whichever way he can."
I crushed the coal until I sweated, lamenting my wretched fate and muttering under my breath. For one of imagination, Abdulkareem performed a very unimaginative task.
"Why do you need crushed coal?" I asked. "I came to take photographs of you and the hills. I don't wish to crush coal."
"Photographs are no good," said Abdulkareem. "They only give you what you see. They don't give you the truth that doesn't meet the eye. Photographs have no imagination."
"Crushing coal has no imagination," said I.
"There's truth that does not meet the eye, rascal," he said, taking the brick away from me.
This is the photograph I wish to leave behind, not the stories and not the legends and not the true accounts – just this picture:
The green hills and the gray boulders are barely visible through the midday haze. The sun whitewashes the edges, no luxury of shade in evidence. The shallow stream is the only potential source of freshness, yet even the stream keeps not the promise and instead of cool breeze it delivers the shining reflection of the scorching sun. The cloudless sky is not blue, but light yellow. A sandstorm is looming.
A lonely old Kurd, sweaty, smelly, in tatters and in need of ablutions, is squatting, crouched over a flat stone. His joyless brown face is creased by time and the elements. A fat Turkish cigarette is drooping from the corner of his mouth; his yellow mustache has been burned by many of them.
Spread on the flat stone is a grimy cloth that used to be a woman's shawl – maybe. Contrasting the cloth on which they lie are the half crushed pieces of coal. The Kurd is crushing the coal into thin dust. With dejection he slams a brick upon the pieces of coal — with consternation he smashes this coal with the brick, even as his already bleeding fingers get in the way — with determination he grinds this coal into powder, manufacturing a makeshift gasmask.